The Last Time the Military Tried Terrorists

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The FBI isn't exactly looking for any more embarrassing stories from its past to undermine public confidence in its ability to handle the terrorism investigation. But it turns out the very incident the Bush administration is citing as a precedent for the President's new order on military tribunals — the case of the World War II German saboteurs — wasn't the exactly bureau's finest hour.

The saboteursThe German intelligence service had developed a program to recruit disaffected Americans who had reaffiliated to Germany. The expats were to be trained in sabotage and sent back to the U.S. Eight were selected for the June, 1942 mission that sent two small submarines to the U.S., one to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida and one to Amagansett, Long Island. They surfaced, took small rubber craft to shore, and were in the process of burying their uniforms and some explosives when an unarmed Coast Guardsman drew near.

One of the invaders, George Dasch, sprinted up to the officer, explaining that they were lost fisherman — and offering a bribe not to say anything, which of course made the Guardsman all the more suspicious. The officer went back to his station and reported the incident, but by then the team of four had made it into town and hopped a train to New York City. There they split into pairs, got apartments, bought clothes and had some nice dinners. Then Dasch did what he had apparently always intended to do: called the FBI to turn them all in. He told the local FBI office that he was a Nazi saboteur. The agent in charge, however, wasn't too excited about it. He'd had 3 calls already that day from people claiming to be Napoleon, he said, and he hung up on Dasch.

Dasch was a persistent double-traitor, though, and took a train to Washington, went to the Justice Department and demanded 15 minutes with J. Edgar Hoover. He was dismissed, but finally got an audience with a mid-level official. When Dasch opened his briefcase and showed the official $85,000 he'd been given for the operation, he got his 15 minutes with Hoover. Soon the FBI had arrested Dasch's roommate, and learned about all the others, including the Florida quartet who by then had made it to the Midwest. The newspapers at the time touted it as a brilliant FBI operation; Dasch's cooperation hadn't been revealed, and wouldn't be until much later.

The trial

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an order similar to the one Bush signed Tuesday, and the trial took place in what was then an assembly room for the FBI on the fifth floor of the Justice Department, down the hall from the Attorney General's office (a plaque now commemorates the location, room 5235). J. Edgar Hoover sat at the prosecution table. The press was excluded, except one day when reporters were allowed in while proceedings were in recess so they could see the setup. There was still no revelation that Dasch and his roommate had cooperated. Their plan had been to blow up factories, bridges, an aircraft manufacturing plant and other sites, and they were charged with sabotage and espionage. All 8 were convicted, and all were sentenced to death.

There was an appeal to the Supreme Court, essentially challenging the legitimacy of the military tribunal. Eight justices came back from their summer recess to hear it. The ninth, Frank Murphy, sat out because he was participating in military training exercises with the Army — but was so interested in the proceedings that he listened anyway, hiding behind a curtain at the Court. The justices announced their decision — unanimously against the defendants — at the end of oral argument, though they didn't issue a written opinion until months later, after six of the eight defendants had been executed.

Only six of the eight, because Hoover finally went to the White House and mentioned the cooperation of Dasch and his roommate. Both received lesser sentences, and both wound up serving just a few years.